Intense is the word for writer/director Greg McLean’s 2005 film "Wolf Creek,” which must have done as much for Australian backpacking tourism as Spielberg’s “Jaws” did for splashing about in the ocean three decades earlier.
But it is not aliens that terrify in this road movie, where the unhygienic locals encountered along the way could empty a Star Wars bar with a single snaggled-toothed sneer. Then there is Mick Taylor (John Jarrat), a Vietnam Vet and unemployed so-called “head shooter,” or vermin killer, who no longer has a societally acceptable outlet for his sociopathy. Jarrat brings an uncanny realism to his role, such that one can only hope the actor is never out of work for long for fear of what pastimes he may turn to.
The film opens on the Australian coast, where we are treated to sun-filled close-ups of two young Brits, Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and her friend Kristy (Kestie Morassi), as they wait for an Ausie bloke, Ben (Nathan Phillips), who has agreed to drive them across country. Ben is busy taking care of a small detail at a used car lot, while the girls buy provisions and try to figure out which of them has caught his eye.
As far as we know, they are a partying yet sweet trio. Meanwhile, it is the grown-up world, if you will, that is obsessed with the obscene, like the used car salesman, who pumps an unreceptive Ben for sleazy details about his imminent mobile ménage à trois.
Our trio travels through a properly desolate landscape, dotted with quirky campsites. When Liz stops for gas at an eerie outpost, we are already on edge. Then Ben is caught goofing on the backwardness of this unlikely oasis, and although he makes a good recovery, we wonder if the damage has already been done. Are the locals insulted? Will they retaliate? Inside a primitive cafe, some Ausie-style "Delivrance" types voice their libidinous desires for the girls. Ben hustles the “sheilas” out of there, but tension continues to mount. And Ben's apparent insouciance is foreboding.
McLean is a fine filmmaker, as his deft character development demonstrates. By now we have come to like our young travelers, as we await the worst. At Wolf Creek, the site of the ancient crater, our heroes stop for a “three-hour tour” of the impact site and are promptly marooned in a moonscape that throws into sharp relief their utter vulnerability. Here, watches stop inexplicably; the car engine won't start; and Ben's amorousness sputters without ignition.
The musical score is as haunting as the landscape and just as impressive.
By the time Mick arrives to offer a tow, the group has already begun to break apart. Now the tale becomes one of survival: every woman for herself. Laughs are replaced by screams and Ben has vanished.
The violence is as stark as the earlier images were sunshiny and overexposed. And like any good scary movie, viewer imagination adds tenfold to the terror.
The movie's ending strives for ambiguity, insinuating doubt into the existence of Mick who, we are informed, was never found by police in the actual case the film claims to be based on.
Is Ben just a nice guy who was lucky to survive a hellish ordeal? Or does Ben’s story about a psycho-killer serve to hide demons inside the boy himself? Did Ben have sinister reasons for guiding two girls who were too far from home into a place that has attracted disaster for thousands of years?
In good conscience, I cannot recommend this film because of its sickening portrayal of gruesome violence against the helpless. Still, if you are a hopeless aficionado of the genre be warned that "Wolf Creek" rates three and a half razor-sharp, ketchup-coated stars.